One of my favorite actors, Andy Griffith, died today, at the age of 86. If you’re not familiar with his work outside of the Mayberry R.F.D. universe, which is brilliant, by the way, I’d encourage you watch A Face in the Crowd (1957) by the controversial director Elia Kazan. (Kazan, as you may recall, outed several of his friends as Communists before the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1952, ending many a promising career in Hollywood.) In the film, Griffith plays Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes, an angry alcoholic drifter who shoots to fame practially overnight by spinning folksy (made-up) tales of small town America. It’s an incredibly visionary piece of work, which foretold, among other things, the rise of celebrity culture in the United States and the popularity of television-enabled con men like Glenn Beck, who drive big ratings by connecting with the masses through the telling of “simple truths” (which are actually anything but), all while serving the political ends of their corporate masters. Here’s the trailer.
[If you're a Netflix subscriber, you can order the film here.]
I know that Griffith has become a bit of a joke in later life, but his work in the 50s and 60s was really incredible. I’m particularly struck, every time I watch the Andy Griffith Show, by how laid back he is, and how generous he is with other actors. I don’t know that there are too many stars out there, either then or now, that would insist on just sitting back and whittling while someone like Don Knotts took all the laughs. Maybe I’m reading too much into it, but I really think that speaks to the man’s character. And, for what it’s worth, I also think it reflects well on him that Ron Howard, who is probably the only well-adjusted child actor produced by the Hollywood system, grew up in his shadow. I suppose there’s a chance that Griffith was an asshole in the real world, and I’m willing to accept that, but, as I sit here now, curled up in a sweaty ball, hacking away with a summer cold, I think that he was probably one of the better men that I’ve welcomed into my living room through the tiny portal we call television.
note: I was also going to link to the monologue that first made Griffith famous, back in 1953, but every copy was yanked from the internet this morning. The piece is called What it Was, Was Football, and clearly someone in the Griffith family has intentions of putting it back on the market now that he’s dead. The popularity of the recording, in which Griffith, portraying a rural preacher who stumbles into his first college football game by accident, got Griffith a slot on the Ed Sullivan Show, and the rest, as they say, is history.